Friday, June 10, 2011

Adventure classics -- A puritanical swashbuckler

Red Shadows
by Robert E. Howard
At first thought, the possibility of a Puritan turning pirate seems as unlikely as, well, Captain Jack Sparrow terrorizing the Spanish Main. But the conflicted character of Solomon Kane is a strong illustration of Howard’s ability to, as H.P. Lovecraft said, “understand and mentally inhabit past ages,” as well as a thinking person’s version of Conan.

In spite of Howard’s own agnostic attitude toward religion, he could write a compelling portrait, in Kane, of a man who believes himself to be an agent of God’s will. Even if carrying out that will requires him to associate with witch doctors and follow his own urges for adventure and swashbuckling fights. With its blend of supernatural horror and swordplay, Howard scholar Rusty Burke labeled the Kane stories, predating Howard’s Hyborian tales, the first of the sword and sorcery genre.

Red Shadows,” the initial story featuring Kane, was written when Howard was only twenty-one, although not published until the August 1928 number of “Weird Tales.” In it, an unnamed stranger first encounters a dying girl and, after hearing her story, determines to avenge her. True to his puritan heritage, in Howard’s words “he made no wild, reckless vow, swore by no saints or devils. . . ‘Men shall die for this,’ he said coldly.”
That, needless to say, is the last cold-natured action of the story as Kane tracks the killer from Europe to the African coast where he teams with shaman N’Longa, who has a zombie or two in his bag of magic tricks to keep the excitement bubbling.

Kane’s story was made into a movie -- “Solomon Kane” -- starring James Purefoy of HBO’s series “Rome,” in 2009. Despite receiving fairly good reviews, it was not widely distributed in the U.S. (although a fan on reports seeing it at the Alamo Draft House in Austin, Texas). Movies based on Howard’s stories and characters generally haven’t done well at the box office, but I’ll hope for better luck when the remake of “Conan the Barbarian” comes out this August. It will star Jason Momoa, a former male model who has acted in the TV series “Game of Thrones,” Stargate Atlantis,” and “Baywatch.”

(Next Friday: Love me, love my dog -- Howard’s story of fighting seadogs -- really -- sailor Steve Costigan and his best friend.)


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